The Babushkas of Chernobyl. Directed by Holly Morris and Anne Bogart

The Babushkas of Chernobyl. Directed by Holly Morris and Anne Bogart The flowers on her bright green headscarf and her fashionable blouse appear to outshine even the bright blossoms and lush landscapes around her. Picturesque clouds hang in the blue sky. With a rod held firmly in her swollen hands, Valentyna Ivanivna throws a fishhook into wind-touched waters and reflects on her life in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. This area has been described as one of the ten most polluted places in the world. Still, this tan-faced woman in her seventies is convinced that she would already have died “more than five times” if she had stayed in Kiev. She was evacuated there after the accident. It was not better—the air poisoned by cars, the food contaminated with chemicals. “That’s not healthy, that’s not good.” Cut. The next scene switches to black and white. We see archival footage of the shattered reactor building; expanding trails of dust swallow its surroundings. People walk through the dust in protective clothing, their movements reminiscent of astronauts during a moon landing. The five-sentence announcement from Vremya, the Soviet evening news program, on April 28, 1986, follows: an accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant occurred; one reactor was damaged; actions to “liquidate” the consequences have been undertaken; the affected have been helped, and a state commission has been established. The program aired two days after the explosion that contaminated large areas of Belarus, the Ukraine, Russia, as well as European lands much further west and north. Vremya did not show the pictures presented in the documentary. It only offered viewers a retouched photo of the reactor site. According to official statistics at the time of the accident, around seven million people inhabited the contaminated territories. The first to be evacuated during the thirty-six criminally long hours after the reactor exploded were the approximately 43,000 inhabitants of Prypyat, a city just 2 kilometers from the reactor site. During the following months, another 50,000 had to leave the so-called Zone of Alienation, an area now cordoned off by barbed wire. The state instructed these refugees not to tell anyone what happened. Astonishingly, most of them remained silent until 1989 when revelations about the magnitude of the catastrophe became a focus of mass protests that helped turn Michael Gorbachev’s perestroika into catastroika, accelerating the collapse of the Soviet empire. In total, 200,000 to 350,000 people were evacuated, resettled, or left the area on their own. Nevertheless, around five million people are still living in contaminated areas in Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia. A small number, between 200 and 2,000, even returned to the Zone. Although their status remains illegal, the Ukraine decided to provide them with basic infrastructure such as electricity and pension payment delivery. Babushkas of Chernobyl (accent is on the first syllable: BAbushkas) gives some of those “self-settlers” (samosely) a face and a voice: allowing them to speak for themselves, and in many cases, contradict themselves. It is hard not to believe they are deceiving us—and themselves. In an often unsettling and provocative way, the filmmakers adumbrate the enormous complexity of post-Chernobyl life, a life between knowledge and ignorance, vulnerability and resilience, deception and repression, uncertainty and self-affirmation, fear and hope, loss and sense-making, profound loneliness, and new communities of shared suffering. This makes the documentary exceptionally interesting material for discussion. It touches on almost every possible realm of environmental history including the challenges of conducting (field) research in a highly polluted region. Yet the presentation tends to be confusing: the film offers viewers little background information; the characters are often difficult to distinguish; their actions and narratives frequently coalesce. Male characters remain nameless. Consequently, this documentary would demand further contextualization from instructors who might want to use it in their classrooms. Otherwise they might risk further nurturing a tedious, voyeuristic excitement for the “dead zone” or a simplistic romanticization of a putatively thriving and “untouched” nature. The filmmakers do not indulge in already far too often reproduced images of an ostensible wilderness, images of howling wolves and glimpses of wild horses’ forelocks in the fog of the marshlands, for example, as shown in other documentaries. Fortunately, in Babushkas of Chernobyl, animals appear only in their domestic version or as anticipation. Surrounding the maverick “fisherwoman” and “hedge witch” Valentyna Ivanivna, the female filmmakers offer viewers a sisterhood of three women in bright headscarves: Hanna Zavorotnya, Maria Shovkuta, and a nameless third. Each lives independently in her own house; Hanna shares hers with her disabled sister. In the documentary, they visit each other, they cook for each other, they drink, sing, dance, and pray together. All three have witnessed and survived the atrocities of the century—Stalin’s famine and the Nazi occupation—as well as personal hardships with children dying or alcoholic husbands. “Now we should live,” states Maria. “We are not afraid of anything, only of starvation.” Repeatedly they reassure themselves and the viewers how beautiful and fulfilling life can be in a disaster site. It is their motherland; they claim they never regretted sneaking back illegally. Motherland (rodina) is the ever-returning topos in the narratives. Wiry and small, Maria Shovkuta proudly announces that she was one of the first to return. Her initial act was to put a handful of soil into her mouth and swear that she would never leave again. Rodina was always central to the Russian and later the Soviet empire. Even today, little is more important than the motherland in the dominant political discourse, but also in the most intimate relationship to nature. To leave the motherland, where one’s ancestors are buried, meant to betray it. Babushka Hanna summarizes this connectedness: “I love my motherland and my graves.” Hanna’s graves are painted as sky blue as the window frames of the old wooden houses. The babushkas walk about in bright green and blue coats with soft instrumental music or telling folksongs in the soundtrack. Their living rooms are filled with colorful carpets and embroideries. The camera focuses on the rich red of the freshly made raspberry jam and on lots of—literally, radiant—yellow-beige mushrooms (normalizing even the most radioactive of food). In stark contrast, the village outside the Zone appears bleak, as if the babushkas who landed there had left all color behind when evacuated. Even their headscarves seem misted with gray. None had returned. But all of those who speak in the documentary express their longing, their wish to go back: “Motherland is motherland.” People outside the Zone, an employee of the radiation measurement station claims, often die of longing. Those who return, he cites one study, live longer than those resettled. When (male) scientists come to visit the babushkas in the Zone to collect soil samples, water, and produce, the old women remain indifferent. They are grateful for the visitors bearing bread and good humor. Only momentary glimpses of uneasiness are captured in the film, such as when the ever more alarming beeping of the dosimeter breaks through their wall of ignorance. But instead of informing the babushkas about their findings, the scientists share a homemade strawberry wine with them. Even the young woman working as an official tour guide through the Zone and accompanying the filmmakers pops a freshly pickled cucumber into her mouth just moments after instructing the film crew in her theatrical voice that it was forbidden to touch or eat any vegetation. “Of course everything is radioactive,” sighs the female scientist who tested the samples from the babushkas’ houses at her lab in Chernobyl. The old small town, about 12 kilometers from the reactor, accommodates the people who still work in the Zone. She explains that she feels sorry for the people drinking the water and eating the food. For some, however, drinking the water “with a light uranium aftertaste” and eating the forbidden fruits of the “most toxic place on earth” has become a thrilling adventure. Shaky lay footage of three young men pursuing adolescent dares in the Zone follows. Viewers watch them excitedly climbing the barbed wire at night and making their way through a landscape they know through the computer game S.T.A.L.K.E.R. They call themselves stalkers after the game. “Crazy stalkers,” adds Alexander Naumov, unnamed in the documentary. He was one of the most prominent “stalkers” of the first generation, whose members come from the region and participated in the cleanup after the accident. The first stalkers regard themselves more as disclosers and educators than “postapocalyptic romance” seekers, which the new stalkers seem to be. “They lost touch with reality,” pinpoints Naumov, who died in 2017. But reality remains fleeting. “You don’t come here for clear answers,” says US journalist and author Mary Mycio, as she walks around the radioactively contaminated forest with Valentyna Ivanivna. She is referring to the site, of course, but she could just as easily be evaluating the documentary. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Society for Environmental History and the Forest History Society. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices) http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png Environmental History Oxford University Press

The Babushkas of Chernobyl. Directed by Holly Morris and Anne Bogart

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Publisher
Oxford University Press
Copyright
© The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Society for Environmental History and the Forest History Society. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com
ISSN
1084-5453
eISSN
1930-8892
D.O.I.
10.1093/envhis/emx166
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Abstract

The flowers on her bright green headscarf and her fashionable blouse appear to outshine even the bright blossoms and lush landscapes around her. Picturesque clouds hang in the blue sky. With a rod held firmly in her swollen hands, Valentyna Ivanivna throws a fishhook into wind-touched waters and reflects on her life in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. This area has been described as one of the ten most polluted places in the world. Still, this tan-faced woman in her seventies is convinced that she would already have died “more than five times” if she had stayed in Kiev. She was evacuated there after the accident. It was not better—the air poisoned by cars, the food contaminated with chemicals. “That’s not healthy, that’s not good.” Cut. The next scene switches to black and white. We see archival footage of the shattered reactor building; expanding trails of dust swallow its surroundings. People walk through the dust in protective clothing, their movements reminiscent of astronauts during a moon landing. The five-sentence announcement from Vremya, the Soviet evening news program, on April 28, 1986, follows: an accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant occurred; one reactor was damaged; actions to “liquidate” the consequences have been undertaken; the affected have been helped, and a state commission has been established. The program aired two days after the explosion that contaminated large areas of Belarus, the Ukraine, Russia, as well as European lands much further west and north. Vremya did not show the pictures presented in the documentary. It only offered viewers a retouched photo of the reactor site. According to official statistics at the time of the accident, around seven million people inhabited the contaminated territories. The first to be evacuated during the thirty-six criminally long hours after the reactor exploded were the approximately 43,000 inhabitants of Prypyat, a city just 2 kilometers from the reactor site. During the following months, another 50,000 had to leave the so-called Zone of Alienation, an area now cordoned off by barbed wire. The state instructed these refugees not to tell anyone what happened. Astonishingly, most of them remained silent until 1989 when revelations about the magnitude of the catastrophe became a focus of mass protests that helped turn Michael Gorbachev’s perestroika into catastroika, accelerating the collapse of the Soviet empire. In total, 200,000 to 350,000 people were evacuated, resettled, or left the area on their own. Nevertheless, around five million people are still living in contaminated areas in Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia. A small number, between 200 and 2,000, even returned to the Zone. Although their status remains illegal, the Ukraine decided to provide them with basic infrastructure such as electricity and pension payment delivery. Babushkas of Chernobyl (accent is on the first syllable: BAbushkas) gives some of those “self-settlers” (samosely) a face and a voice: allowing them to speak for themselves, and in many cases, contradict themselves. It is hard not to believe they are deceiving us—and themselves. In an often unsettling and provocative way, the filmmakers adumbrate the enormous complexity of post-Chernobyl life, a life between knowledge and ignorance, vulnerability and resilience, deception and repression, uncertainty and self-affirmation, fear and hope, loss and sense-making, profound loneliness, and new communities of shared suffering. This makes the documentary exceptionally interesting material for discussion. It touches on almost every possible realm of environmental history including the challenges of conducting (field) research in a highly polluted region. Yet the presentation tends to be confusing: the film offers viewers little background information; the characters are often difficult to distinguish; their actions and narratives frequently coalesce. Male characters remain nameless. Consequently, this documentary would demand further contextualization from instructors who might want to use it in their classrooms. Otherwise they might risk further nurturing a tedious, voyeuristic excitement for the “dead zone” or a simplistic romanticization of a putatively thriving and “untouched” nature. The filmmakers do not indulge in already far too often reproduced images of an ostensible wilderness, images of howling wolves and glimpses of wild horses’ forelocks in the fog of the marshlands, for example, as shown in other documentaries. Fortunately, in Babushkas of Chernobyl, animals appear only in their domestic version or as anticipation. Surrounding the maverick “fisherwoman” and “hedge witch” Valentyna Ivanivna, the female filmmakers offer viewers a sisterhood of three women in bright headscarves: Hanna Zavorotnya, Maria Shovkuta, and a nameless third. Each lives independently in her own house; Hanna shares hers with her disabled sister. In the documentary, they visit each other, they cook for each other, they drink, sing, dance, and pray together. All three have witnessed and survived the atrocities of the century—Stalin’s famine and the Nazi occupation—as well as personal hardships with children dying or alcoholic husbands. “Now we should live,” states Maria. “We are not afraid of anything, only of starvation.” Repeatedly they reassure themselves and the viewers how beautiful and fulfilling life can be in a disaster site. It is their motherland; they claim they never regretted sneaking back illegally. Motherland (rodina) is the ever-returning topos in the narratives. Wiry and small, Maria Shovkuta proudly announces that she was one of the first to return. Her initial act was to put a handful of soil into her mouth and swear that she would never leave again. Rodina was always central to the Russian and later the Soviet empire. Even today, little is more important than the motherland in the dominant political discourse, but also in the most intimate relationship to nature. To leave the motherland, where one’s ancestors are buried, meant to betray it. Babushka Hanna summarizes this connectedness: “I love my motherland and my graves.” Hanna’s graves are painted as sky blue as the window frames of the old wooden houses. The babushkas walk about in bright green and blue coats with soft instrumental music or telling folksongs in the soundtrack. Their living rooms are filled with colorful carpets and embroideries. The camera focuses on the rich red of the freshly made raspberry jam and on lots of—literally, radiant—yellow-beige mushrooms (normalizing even the most radioactive of food). In stark contrast, the village outside the Zone appears bleak, as if the babushkas who landed there had left all color behind when evacuated. Even their headscarves seem misted with gray. None had returned. But all of those who speak in the documentary express their longing, their wish to go back: “Motherland is motherland.” People outside the Zone, an employee of the radiation measurement station claims, often die of longing. Those who return, he cites one study, live longer than those resettled. When (male) scientists come to visit the babushkas in the Zone to collect soil samples, water, and produce, the old women remain indifferent. They are grateful for the visitors bearing bread and good humor. Only momentary glimpses of uneasiness are captured in the film, such as when the ever more alarming beeping of the dosimeter breaks through their wall of ignorance. But instead of informing the babushkas about their findings, the scientists share a homemade strawberry wine with them. Even the young woman working as an official tour guide through the Zone and accompanying the filmmakers pops a freshly pickled cucumber into her mouth just moments after instructing the film crew in her theatrical voice that it was forbidden to touch or eat any vegetation. “Of course everything is radioactive,” sighs the female scientist who tested the samples from the babushkas’ houses at her lab in Chernobyl. The old small town, about 12 kilometers from the reactor, accommodates the people who still work in the Zone. She explains that she feels sorry for the people drinking the water and eating the food. For some, however, drinking the water “with a light uranium aftertaste” and eating the forbidden fruits of the “most toxic place on earth” has become a thrilling adventure. Shaky lay footage of three young men pursuing adolescent dares in the Zone follows. Viewers watch them excitedly climbing the barbed wire at night and making their way through a landscape they know through the computer game S.T.A.L.K.E.R. They call themselves stalkers after the game. “Crazy stalkers,” adds Alexander Naumov, unnamed in the documentary. He was one of the most prominent “stalkers” of the first generation, whose members come from the region and participated in the cleanup after the accident. The first stalkers regard themselves more as disclosers and educators than “postapocalyptic romance” seekers, which the new stalkers seem to be. “They lost touch with reality,” pinpoints Naumov, who died in 2017. But reality remains fleeting. “You don’t come here for clear answers,” says US journalist and author Mary Mycio, as she walks around the radioactively contaminated forest with Valentyna Ivanivna. She is referring to the site, of course, but she could just as easily be evaluating the documentary. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Society for Environmental History and the Forest History Society. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)

Journal

Environmental HistoryOxford University Press

Published: Apr 1, 2018

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